Q&A

Anita Sands on what a COVID-era boardroom expects of you

Have a simple plan for resilient employee and customer experiences to secure board approval

Dr. Anita Sands sits on five boards of directors, including ServiceNow. She has a PhD in atomic and molecular physics. She was the Head of Transformation Management at Citigroup during the Great Recession. She analyzes the world’s most successful leaders and distills those insights into succinct “wisdom cards.” Thousands have sought out her advice. And, she is the mother to a preschooler and step-mom to five. Suffice to say, when it comes to resilience and gravitational potential, she knows of what she speaks.

Read on for her guidance to business executives steering their companies during this tumultuous time.

Post-COVID, how do you define and evaluate whether an organization has a strong employee and customer experience, and why does that matter?

Great leaders know that at times like this, major dislocations can occur across and within industries, therefore, we should be asking how we can elevate our thinking– not just meet, but exceed customer and employees expectations. A key element is gaining perspective from employees who are out on the frontlines with customers. Snow melts from the outside in. This is also when diversity plays a huge strategic role because you want a broad diverse range of perspectives inside your organization so you can innovate your way out of these unprecedented circumstances.

Second, as a leader, focus on the human side of everything we do. Have empathy. Don’t over-rotate on one variable at the expense of another, but try to strike the right balance between reality and optimism, vulnerability and courage and so on. It’s the combination that leads to optimal, human-centric experiences that people are craving right now.

Thirdly, right now leaders need to be more thoughtful and meticulous about who they engage, in what, and in what way. For example, I was mentoring an executive at one of my companies, and she mentioned how bombarded and overwhelmed she was feeling. One reason was a request from higherups for daily updates on the business—pipeline, customer engagement, invoicing. She thought the board was asking for it and I assured her we were not. But it was insightful that, in times of challenge, when people’s energy and resources are depleted, you can’t place unrealistic expectations on people, you’ve got to prioritize. Think about what the most essential things are to get done. The way you engage employees in times of crisis is different than during normal times.

More broadly, how should COVID inform executive strategy?

As a leader, you always want to be catching the front end of the wave. COVID has given us permission to challenge all of the underlying assumptions in our business and has forced us to look at the ways in which we do things.

A story I read of an academic at Harvard provides a good example. Her house went on fire. She went around the house to close all the doors to stop the spread of the blaze into different rooms. Later that night, standing outside of her burned down home, she said she never realized that she was closing doors to rooms that would no longer exist. Executives too must ask: Are we spending time closing doors to rooms that might no longer exist in the future? Or are we actually pivoting to think about the rooms and doors that might exist in the future.

For instance, I would be looking for a CHRO to present a plan that is not predicated on data that existed prior to the crisis. I would ask a CHRO, “What are the assumptions upon which your plan is based? What assumptions are still opened to being shifted? In that case, how will you change your response? What are the real leading indicators here?”

Or, if you are not a remote-first company and now switch to become remote-first, you can widen the aperture of talent. But processes and culture are the way in which we get things done. When we switch from one modality of work to another, the way we get things done now changes. We need to think now about redefining our processes and resetting our culture. And that needs to be done with intent because you’re going to end up with a culture one way or the other, the only question is the degree to which you’re actively shaping it.

What are your expectations as a board member on how leaders should tackle this work?

What I would want to see is a universal goal for a great employee experience–one that is defined and understood by all of the C-suite. But I want to see targeted strategies from each functional unit for how we’re achieving that universal goal. You don’t want to have separate efforts that don’t tie into that universal goal.

How you present that to the board matters too. When people come into a boardroom, they often try to stretch for authority because they think they need to go in and impress. They use too much jargon and data. What impresses is if you can create understanding and get the board to the outcome you’re looking for – whatever will move the business forward. That’s what impresses people.

In this era of zoom meetings, we have to be far more mindful about how we prepare and present information in order to have the desired effect. Zoom meetings are entirely different in terms of choreography and content. You have to think “less is more”, how can I resonate with this group of people? What is most important and relevant to them?

Simplicity is actually the most sophisticated form of mastery.

Hear more from Dr. Sands in this webinar: Building Team Resiliency through Simplification. Joined by guest, Alia Bojilova, the duo will guide you on how to empower change through changing the mindset of your team, and how to structure the conversation to deliver a stronger impact for transformation.

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